Louisville Art Deco - Feature - Stalking Lawrie: America's Machine Age Michelangelo
Louisville Art Deco Menu:
by Gregory Paul Harm, M.A.
All photographs by Gregory Paul Harm, unless otherwise noted.
The first thing I usually encounter when talking about Lee Lawrie is "Lee who?" If you've never heard of him, don't feel bad. Most Americans haven't. In fact, I knew very little about the man until just a few years ago.
During a business trip to New York in 2000, I was free to wander the streets of Manhattan, where I spent several days looking for Art Deco skyscrapers. I got to see the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Chanin Building, Rockefeller Center and many, many more, too numerous to remember all of their names.
In viewing Rockefeller Center, I was dumbstruck by the polychromed bas-reliefs that adorn the front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Here was this Moses-looking figure, with repeating rows of geometric whiskers blowing more than a yard long out of the frame. He floats in gilded lined clouds of purple, burgundy, mauve, gray and black. In his splayed right hand he holds a golden caliper-looking compass. Wisdom Creating the Universe or so it's titled. Behind his hand there's a biblical verse, "Wisdom and Knowledge Shall Be The Stability of Thy Times."
Flanking either side of him are these two Deco figures, also floating in the clouds. Sound cups his hands up to listen and Light floats on another cloud, with a spectrum of these dull polychromed rays emanating from her right. As it was built, it was the RCA Building, and Sound and Light represented radio and television. Note that when these figures were installed, around 1937, television was in its infancy, and most homes didn't own one.
My parents told me that they had gotten one of the first television sets in the neighborhood, in around 1948 or 1949. Before most folks had TV sets, neighbors would actually come over and watch, and even socialize while doing so. I've lived in my home here in Austin since 1991 and don't even know the people that live more than two or three doors away. All I'm saying is that the more prevalent television grew, the more people stopped socializing in their neighborhoods, and at the same time, people have let other important activities fall by the wayside. Like reading books and newspapers. But that's another story.
Back to this one. I was literally blown away by the power of these images. What was this guy thinking when he did these? Where in the world would you even visualize such designs, much less be able to carve them in stone like that? These works were some of the most amazing relief sculptures that I had ever seen.
But when I took the tour, I learned that the artist who had created the polychromed bas-reliefs on the front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza was Lee Lawrie.
But before long, I realized that I had heard of Lawrie before; way out west in Nebraska where I grew up. Lawrie was the artist who had created the Sower, a pioneer sowing seeds and hoping for a new crop. He's 19 feet tall, atop a 12-foot pedestal of sheaves of corn and wheat. Bronze. 400 feet above the ground.
But then, what struck me was, how in the world, in 1920, did Lincoln, Nebraska land the same artist to do the sculpture on their Capitol? Nebraska at that time was pretty much an agricultural state. That was the year my Mother was born out on a farm in Harlan County Nebraska. At that time, they did have a model T here and there, but many farmers of that day were still working the land with horses or mules or maybe even oxen. Tractors were still a luxury, and Rural Electrification was a goal about as remote as a trip to Mars. So when you imagine that for the capital city of this largely agrarian state, what was then still pretty much a dinky cow town (with a population of just under 55,000 people in 1920), to be able to score an artist for public works who was the caliber that could do work at Rockefeller Center was almost beyond my comprehension.
So from that initial connection, a fury of curiosity took root in me and over the next couple of years, I began looking further into Lawrie. Initially, there is not a whole lot out there on him. You can't just waltz into Barnes and Noble's or Borders and find any books on him. In fact, you can look through the sculpture books in such bookstores yet his name is conspicuously absent from them. Even books on 20th Century Art in America are packed with stories of Picasso, Warhol, Jackson Pollack, Maxfield Parrish and even Norman Rockwell. But you won't find Lee Lawrie, except for in a few books on Art Deco.
I wondered why. Recall that in 2000, Google was just another search engine and Wikipedia, was still a code word among a few elite nerds. Initially, you could do a search and end up with not much more that twenty or thirty hits.
But as I started cultivating this research and hitting various libraries, I found more and more layers and began peeling them away. Early trips lead me to the National Sculpture Society's headquarters on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan where I found a few dozen articles. And as I began to discover more articles, I started coming across more biographic information. And if you ever needed some Horatio Alger story to offer you inspiration, to rise up and fly, you need to know the story of Lawrie.
Among the first things I learned were that he lived from 1877 until January 1963, so he was born the same year as my Dad's Dad, and would have died when I was a fourth grader. Most Baby Boomers recall where they were on November 22 of that year, when the news broke that JFK had been shot in Dallas...
So he was 85 when he died. But soon I learned that he had a career that lasted more than twice as long as most people work. He had begun working as a sculptor's apprentice in 1892 or 93 for Henry Proctor at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, assisting him on his equestrian sculptures that were outside of the Transportation Building at the fair. And he was still actively working at age 85 -- until 8 days before his death, when they took him to the hospital for the last time.
So when you think of how much the world changed from when he began work until he died, I like to explain that his career spanned from the Gaslight Era to the Space Age! So perhaps you can imagine the changes he witnessed in his lifetime, especially those as the nation went from an agrarian society to an urban one. And like his generation, he would have seen the coming of the automobile, phones, radio, TV, commercial air travel, and all of the other marvels of modern technology that we now take for granted. Likewise, figure that he coordinated sculpture out of a studio above a garage in Harlem, and mastered logistics of creating plaster models for his stonework, shipping them off by Railway Express to various jobs, and overseeing crews of reliable stone carvers such as Eddie Ardolino and company to enlarge the models and carve them in place. He managed this with letters and telegrams. I can't imagine how anyone could achieve all of that in an age before faxes, emails, pdf's and cell phones.
During those roughly seven decades, his art evolved, from the realistic imagery of his youth, to an explosive output of Art Deco between the Wars, to a more toned-down and perhaps more naturalistic style in is latter years.
In 1895, Lawrie went to Boston, and found his way to the offices of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, Architects, where he presented himself to Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Lawrie was 19 at the time, and Goodhue was just 24. This began a friendship that would last for nearly three decades, until Goodhue died of a stroke at age 55, in 1924.
Goodhue and Lawrie have both independently stated that they collaborated on more than 100 buildings, and that Lawrie did the sculpture on all of them!
But Lawrie was modest to a fault, an extremely shy fellow, who shunned the spotlight. Lawrie later remarked that he felt that his role as an architectural sculptor was like that of a fiddler in an orchestra.
The German poet Goethe is credited with describing architecture as being "frozen music." If that is the case, Lawrie serves as its Hendrix, dotting buildings from coast to coast with his stone riffs. Like Hendrix, Lawrie created his own style-seeing and shaping his visions differently than anyone before him, or since. Lawrie was a workaholic, who, fueled by coffee and cigarettes, would begin work by 9 daily, seven days a week, and work until 9 or 10 at night, when he fell asleep and would often sleep on a cot in his studio. He never had much time for a social life outside of work, but rather, spent each waking hour doing what he loved. We should all be so lucky…
So in the decades he worked with Goodhue they began by creating churches, academic buildings and some libraries in the northeastern United States. In Chicago, they built the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago and in Los Angeles, they built the Public Library. Together they also designed a bunch of buildings at West Point, the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington D.C., the Rice Institute (later University) Campus in Houston and a host of buildings at Cal Tech. Goodhue even built mansions in Montecito, California, Gothic Churches in Havana, and went as far as to build the Honolulu Art Institute and the Bank of Hawaii.
And stylistically, while Lawrie's initial output in the 1890s and 1900s were either realistic figures, like the three life sized Union Generals he cast in Bronze for the Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg around 1909, or multiple figures of Christ he did at churches in New York, like St. Mary the Virgin's and St. Bartholomew's, his art began to undergo major changes.
Which is this: during the period from 1908 to 1918, it is pretty logical to assume that Yale was probably as hip to what was going on in the art world as any other campus was in those days. And it is also logical to theorize that there were probably influences from Europe, from either other faculty, students or both. And while the French were busy dealing with World War I, there was a fair that was to have taken place during that time that was delayed, due to the War. This would be the one they finally managed to pull off in 1925 as the International Exposition of Decorative Arts, which we now faithfully worship as the Bethlehem of Art Deco, (even as Jim points out, the words Art Deco were never uttered until the 1960s or 1970s, retroactively.)
All this gives rise to my thesis: that Lawrie's tenure at Yale transformed his art from the traditional realistic style, to the moderne, due in part to his exposure to the stimulus of academic world, and due to the political forces in the world, and the aftermath of the War.
Art Deco was an amalgam of multiple forces. First, the horror of the War was unprecedented. Never before had killing become industrialized-mechanized. During the closing wars of the 19th Century, soldiers would march off to battle with some regularity, but they would generally end their conflicts and return home before winter. Most wars didn't last that long, and were fought manually or with cavalry. But the horrors that were unleashed in Europe in 1914 were unimaginable, and they don't bear repeating here.
In part the forces that gave rise to the Bauhaus movement and Dadaism in the postwar period were direct action-reaction scenarios. These movements were the reaction to escape from; and never allow the repetition of the horrors of war that had been visited upon Europe. This led to social movements whereby they viewed the excess use of detail and ornamentation as being a frivolous use of resources, akin to taking food directly out of people's mouths.
Art Deco took root in this world that was ripe for change and a break from the past. Much of this new vision was to strip away the ornate decoration and reduce the very commodity of art that was applied to architecture. And again, reacting to the old world, the new one needed to be streamlined: socially as much as artistically and physically. The new thinking was that if it was old, it was bad. The past was so horrid that a break was needed to escape its grasp. So gradually, architecture began to spin off excess detail and take on new more modern forms.
And socially, the Western World was being transformed with the advent of the automobile, which entering its early maturation, saw the advent of streamlining, emulating the sexy curvature of trains, planes and ships, as illustrated elsewhere on this site.
So the influences of speed and streamlining directly influenced the arts and architecture. Naturally, Lawrie was front and center on this avant garde movement. And again, we look back and call his work Art Deco.
One of Lawrie's favorite themes was the Owl. And one can see here his mastery of the moderne genre. This is a photo from Lawrie's archives of his clay sketch of an owl, however like so much of his work, it's anybody's guess where this little fellow was installed, or if he was used at all.
In this photo, we see Goodhue's Tomb, sculpted by Lawrie in 1929 at the Chapel of the Intercession in Spanish Harlem, New York City. Above Goodhue, across the arch are examples of the buildings Goodhue built, including the Los Angeles Public Library, the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, and the Nebraska State Capitol at the top of the arch, signifying the largest building Goodhue ever built. His head rests on books and Pegasus sits at his feet, as a symbol of creativity. The face and hands were modeled after castings taken upon his death.
Representing the Red Man's Tree of Life, as it was named in the 1920s, these are the doors to the original Senate Chamber at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. This is also the image from which I draw the title to my book, Prairie Deco: The Sculpture of Lee Lawrie at the Nebraska State Capitol. Of his career of nearly 70 years, the Nebraska State Capitol was Lawrie's largest commission, and has more of his work in a single location than anywhere in the world.
Among the finest array of Art Deco designs anywhere, these images grace the (former) Education Building in Harrisburg, PA, now used as the State Library and Archives. These images follow the themes of Arts and Industries: Showing Pennsylvania kids in the Great Depression a world of work that they could someday enter.
So let this essay serve as an introduction to Lee Lawrie to the American Consciousness.
Finally, another observation about Art Deco and architecture. As we've seen, Art Deco was short lived, popular mostly between the World Wars, which coincided with the rush of the Roaring Twenties, and the lasting through the end of the Great Depression.
So if you've ever known any starving artists, you can imagine that the 20s were kinder to them than the 30s were-except for one big factor. One of FDR's main strategies for combating the hopelessness of the Depression was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which in addition to creating jobs in public infrastructure projects, the program became a huge outlet for projects in the Arts.
So I'd like to add to Jim's commentary about why Art Deco disappeared. An article I read opined that following V-E and V-J Days, America was ready to put the memories of the War and the Depression behind them. Unfortunately, for many, Art Deco reminded them of 1) the Depression itself, and 2) Fascist European regimes; respectively Nazis and the Fascists in Italy. That Art Deco was also popular in Britain, France and the rest of Western Europe, didn't seem to matter much.
Another observation I'd like to make is that Art Deco died even younger than James Dean.
The International style in architecture, shed the detail and anything that was ornate or decorative to building. As Jim has already pointed out, boxy glass and steel towers sprung up, void of personality, and in my opinon, any soul.
So, the ultimate irony here, is that almost no one in the world was more negatively affected by this than Lawrie. While he had been perhaps the most diligent champion of the art form, once architecture found it's fresh young girlfriend, the International Style, the old love didn't seem as attractive. So for Lawrie, this meant that there would be no more buildings to complement or enhance with his imagery, which meant no more work. The work simply evaporated like a light morning sprinkle of rain.
So in 1940, feeling that his life was over, and at age 63, he left New York and moved to a farm near Easton, Maryland, near where he had spent some time in his youth. By then, most of his kids were grown and on their own, but he surely must have faced the same struggles and mysteries that any American faces when suddenly the rules and the world change. Consider nationwide how many people who worked in factories or blue collar trades have had to start over, when their jobs headed south or overseas. Such change when thrust upon us is never painless. So whether you were a joe six-pack, or an architectural sculptor, the world changes and requires us to adapt or fade away. And as the world changes, it changes and it can be fickle towards our life choices, so plan accordingly.
But Lawrie did manage to stay remarkably busy for the rest of his sixties, seventies and eighties, or for at least another 25 years, he kept on creating art, in the form of the occasional mural, medals, and monuments. Perhaps one of the most interesting anecdotes of his career came in the form of a coda of sorts.
Lawrie had been the sculptor to Goodhue's National Academy of Sciences in D.C., completed around 1924.
Door grilles inside the National Academy of Sciences. In Washington, D.C. Lawrie used the Zodiac in many of his works, such as the designs on Bok Tower, and the chandelier at the Los Angeles Public Library. I have seen photos of lamps at Cal Tech that feature signs of the zodiac as well.
In 1962, at the National Academy of Sciences building underwent a renovation in which a major building addition was constructed. So as one of his last major commissions, Lawrie created door handles of Prometheus and Agamemnon for the addition, pictured below, and added nearly four decades after his first contributions were completed.